U.S. Forest officials urge hunters to use caution in the woods

As gun deer hunting season begins, U.S. Forest Service officials are reminding hunters of guidelines designed to make their hunting trips to national forests and grasslands safe and enjoyable, while sustaining the health of the forests.

Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas is restricted, according to Patrol Captain Chris Crain.

"OHV use on the National Forests is limited to designated routes, and the only such designation is the 85-mile multiple-use trail on the Sam Houston National Forest," Crain said. "Cross-country and off-road use of motorized vehicles of any type is prohibited."

This rule stems from a 2005 directive from the chief of the Forest Service that required each national forest and grassland to designate specific roads, trails and areas open to motor vehicle use. The National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, after public participation through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision-making process, is now implementing the 2005 Travel Management Rule.

"In the right places, and managed carefully, motor vehicles are an appropriate use of national forests. However, if not managed carefully, motorized recreation can damage both the land and the resources that visitors come to enjoy," Crain said. "Each year millions of off-highway vehicles travel America's national forests legally and sensibly on designated roads and trails. A small, but growing number of irresponsible OHV users are threatening the health of all national forests by driving far off-trail and damaging fragile plants, wetlands and ecosystems."

Operating a motor vehicle on National Forest System roads, National Forest System trails and in areas on National Forest System lands carries a greater responsibility than operating a vehicle in a city or other developed setting. Not only must the motor vehicle operators know and follow all applicable traffic laws, but they need to show concern for the environment as well as other forest users. The misuse of motor vehicles are subject to state traffic law, including state requirements for licensing, registration and operation of the vehicle.

Motor vehicle use, especially off-highway vehicle use, involves inherent risks that may cause property damage, serious injury and possibly death. Riders should drive cautiously and anticipate rough surfaces and features such as mud, vegetation and water crossings common to remote driving conditions.

Participants voluntarily assume full responsibility for these damages, risks and dangers. Motor vehicle operators should take care at all times to protect themselves and those under their responsibility.

Much of the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas are remote, and medical assistance may not be readily available. Cellular phones do not work in many areas of the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas. Operators should take adequate food, water, first aid supplies and other equipment appropriate for the conditions and expected weather.

To help visitors to the national forests and grasslands know which roads are open to vehicular traffic, the forest service has available a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) showing where motorized vehicle use is allowed on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, by vehicle type and season of use. This will be of particular interest to hunters who use forest service roads to retrieve game.

The Motorized Vehicle Use Maps are posted on the website: www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas/ and are also available at the Supervisor's Office and Ranger Offices.

Here are some other safety precautions:

•             All hunters and those accompanying them must wear daylight fluorescent orange at any time when hunting, except when hunting at night or when hunting turkey or migratory birds. A minimum of 400 square inches of fluorescent orange must be visible (144 square inches on both the chest and back, and a daylight fluorescent orange cap or hat.)

•             All those camping or hunting in the Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine or Sam Houston National Forest or the Caddo National Grasslands must camp in designated campsites or developed recreation areas from Sept. 15 through Feb. 1.

•             Hunters using the wildlife management areas (WMAs) must have the $48 annual hunting permit to hunt deer, turkey, small game, waterfowl and feral hogs. Wildlife management areas in the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas include the Alabama Creek WMA in the Davy Crockett National Forest, Bannister WMA in the Angelina National Forest, Caddo WMA in the Caddo National Grassland and the Moore Plantation WMA in the Sabine National Forest. The entire Sam Houston National Forest is a wildlife management area.

•             According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Official Hunting Guide and the Public Hunting Lands Booklet, regulations vary in different locations.

•             Portable deer stands are allowed in national forests and grasslands and are limited to 72 hours in one location. To prevent damage to trees, the stands must not be nailed to trees. When hunters fail to remove their deer stands, it causes damage to forest land and creates an expensive, time-consuming cleanup.

•             Vehicles should not be parked near gates or in areas that would impede traffic and block roads.

Hunters may also visit the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas website at www.fs.fed.usda.gov/texas and review information under the "Hunting 2011-2012" link.